What is Hoarding?

Compulsive hoarding is an excessive collection of items that are no longer useful along with the inability to ever discard them, and often creates cramped, unhygienic living conditions. Those who hoard tend to identify their possessions as central parts of their identity and disposing of a possession often leads to extreme anxiety or a sense of grief for the individual.

Understanding the Differences Between Hoarding and Collecting


  • Collectors have a sense of pride in their possessions and experience great joy in displaying and talking about their items

  • Collectors keep their items organized and budget their time and money spent on the collection


  • Hoarders tend to feel embarrassed about their possessions and don’t want others to see them

  • They have clutter where there should be livable space, feel ashamed after acquiring new items, and often experience money issues

  • Excessive hoarding causes the individual’s living space to become so cluttered that they are nearly unusable

  • Without help, hoarding disorder can interfere with daily tasks like cooking, cleaning, personal hygiene, and/or sleeping

  • Extreme clutter can lead to eviction, increased risk for fire, and impaired access to emergency services

Causes for Hoarding

To help a loved one overcome a hoarding issue, one must first understand the root cause of the habit. Those who have excessive-compulsive tendencies or other anxiety and depressive disorders are much more likely to become hoarders. Someone who was already prone to experiencing anxiety, when faced with aging and the possibility of outliving their resources, may begin to collect and save to combat the feeling of being overwhelmed by what lies ahead. Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco conducted a study that discovered that a whopping fifteen percent of depression-stricken older adults engaged in extreme hoarding. This number can be compared to the two to five percent of older adults without depression that engage in these extreme hoarding behaviors. These findings indicate that the depression and anxiety need to be addressed to provide a long-term solution.

How to Help Let Go

Once the root cause has been identified and steps have been taken to acquire long-term treatment, the initial clean up can begin. It is important to do the initial cleanup as soon as possible because hoarding conditions pose hazards to seniors and their caregivers. A significant buildup of items piled on floors and stacked on furniture can cause falls and illness.

The most important component of helping a loved one let go of excess items is to gain trust. Do not scold them for their hording: it will only cause hostility and distrust. It is important that your loved one feels in control of the cleaning and organization process or they will not cooperate and may become extremely distressed. Try not to use harsh language; be positive and understanding. Keep in mind that they are not doing any of this on purpose. Try to be understanding of their need to feel in control of their life.

According to Susan Amos from Changing Keys by Susan, who works frequently with hoarders and their families,

“Hoarders are unable to see what’s wrong with the way they’re living and therefore are resistant to change. These are quite typically very bright individuals with high IQs, high levels of expertise, and impressive careers; it’s not about intelligence. They don’t see what they’re doing as being an issue, can’t help themselves, and don’t know how to stop. It’s crucial to approach them with understanding and not judgement. The earlier you can catch signs of hoarding to address the pattern, the better.”

Once your loved one agrees to start the cleaning process, set a date. Work on one room at a time to avoid becoming overwhelmed. The whole house or apartment broken up into small sections becomes a much less daunting task. With all the clutter around you, it is important to stay organized. Set aside an area for each of the following: donations, keepsakes and valuables, and trash. You’ll find that your loved one will try to put most everything in the keepsake pile at first, but with patience they will begin to find it easier to let go. Do not fight them on every little item or they will get frustrated and stop trusting you.

If your loved one is at a stage where they cannot reason at all and do not want to let go of anything no matter what, someone may have to go through and remove items without their knowledge. This should only be done if the items jeopardize the senior’s health. Though removing items without the senior’s knowledge is a short-term solution and will not change their hoarding patterns, it may be necessary.

Once you have removed unwanted items, you will probably have to call someone to have it removed.

Making Continued Change

Acknowledging the underlying mental health issues contributing to obsessive hoarding is the main component in ensuring that your loved one doesn’t revert to old habits. Skills training and cognitive behavioral training are the most useful tools in preventing a relapse in hoarding behaviors. These tools retrain the individual’s thought process that leads to the behavior, and teaches them new skills on how to stay organized.  Besides enlisting the help of a medical professional, there are many things you can do to help your loved one improve their overall quality of life. Finding fun, senior-friendly activities that allow them to engage with the family or with the community is extremely helpful. You can check our list of nearby, family-friendly events and locations or check your local community center for fun activities.

Lifematters offers a variety of services to help your loved one gain independence and have an increased quality of life. From companionship and shopping assistance to 24 hour care, we can help to provide peace of mind. Our Care Managers can also get you in touch with experts in obsessive hoarding therapy. To learn more about our services, contact us.